Radical Rhythms: World Music–What in the World Is It?

Against the Current, No. 59, November/December 1995

Kim Hunter

WHEN MY COMRADE Ismael Ahmed was asked years ago why we played hip-hop and jazz in the context of the “world music” radio program we did together, he replied: “It’s music and it’s in the world. So, it’s world music.” While only half serious, this reply illustrates the difficulties with the term and the genre.

Like “exotic,” “world music” is a very relative term that depends on who you are, where you are and where you are coming from. So the central question with defining world music becomes: Whose world and whose music are we talking about?

The editors of the indispensable Rough Guide to World Music, the best book on the subject I’ve seen, decided to “ignore western classical music and Anglo American rock and soul and rap, country and jazz–all of which are covered in depth elsewhere  . . . We would deal with . . . zouk, soukous, cajun and zydeco, rai, qawwali, rembetika, taarab, gypsy music, bands from Transylvania, that kind of thing” The Rough Guide definition has problems–some of which are recognized and acknowledged paragraphs later.

Consider another quote from the Rough Guide: “We . . . deal with artists little known in the west but megastars in their own orbit . . . like Juan Luis Guerra.”

In fact, while Juan Luis Guerra, a Dominican singer/songwriter whose last record sold five million copies worldwide, may not be known in much of Anglo America, he is known in the west: He is a superstar throughout the nations of the Caribbean. Contrary to popular Anglo misconception, all of Latin America and the Caribbean are in the west.

This rather didactic geography lesson is necessary to uncover socio-political and economic baggage and prejudices in Anglo America and Europe, particularly in our ruling classes.

With all due respect to the Rough Guide folks, the narrower and more cynical definition of “world music” that I come away with, based on record store bins and the charts, is any culturally specific music outside Anglo America or Britain that has been packaged to sell in Anglo American, West European or Japanese markets.

True, the Rough Guide editors had practical reasons to omit blues and jazz, even though these musics are distinct African-American cultural forms. Yet in places where North American music is not omnipresent (and there are a few still), Duke Ellington and B.B. King may be as wonderfully exotic as Indonesian Gamelan or Chinese Opera are to our ears.

You can find Celtic music on the world music charts and in record store bins even though bluegrass, its obvious and direct descendant, is labeled otherwise and found elsewhere. Much of what makes New Orleans pop music distinctive is its reliance on the African Latin clave rhythm (rock and roll’s “Bo Diddley” beat). Put that beat under a Spanish singer and you have–world music.

The Promise and the Danger

Perhaps the biggest promise, and danger, of world music is the crossbreeding of various popular, indigenous root musics with one another and/or modern technology. On the one hand, you can end up with soukous, a completely infectious re-Africanized rumba created when African Latin music (already a hybrid) from the Caribbean became popular in Zaire, where the music is now driven by electric guitars.

Look for records by soukous pioneer Tabu Ley Rochereau or virtuoso guitarist Diblo Dibala for examples of what can go right with crossbreeding.

On the other hand you can end up, as we have, with fabulous reggae rhythm section musicians being replaced by drum machines that sound like bad cartoon soundtracks, in short “McCulture.” Examples of this are all too plentiful and too painful to be cited.

The market is also flooded with records sampling disembodied, out-of-context “ethnic” voices over hip-hop programmed drum machines and/or the ambient drone of synthesizers.

“Deep Forest” (Sony Records 1992) is among the popular of this crop. The recording samples singers from the rain forests of Cameroon and Zaire, voices laid over various programmed beasts and synthesizers. Some tracks are very successful, as the singers and electronic music are woven to create a newer whole that alters, but does not destroy, the sensual hypnotic singing of the so-called pygmies. I like much of the record and it generates a lot of listener calls at the station where I work.

There are similar but less narrow projects involving expatriate Algerian Khaled, Pakistani legend Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and the Bulgarian Women’s Choir (now called Les Mystere Des Voix Bulgares). All these very powerful singers have projects where, with varying degrees of success, they are wedded to modern dance music–but those projects utterly pale in comparison to their more traditional works.

Roots Don’t Grow Overnight

In the long run, commercialized projects like Deep Forest can best be used to introduce young people from here to the timeless and deeply rooted music sampled on those records.

No one will remember Deep Forest fifty to 100 years from now. But I believe people will still be listening to records like “Nusrat Ali Khan En Concert a Paris” (Harmonica Mundi 1986) or “Echoes of the Forest” (Ellipsis Arts 1985).

The latter is an unadulterated “field” recording of the African rain forest musicians. The polyphonic magic of the singing in its forest context is truly amazing, echoing and blending with the surroundings as it was designed to do.

At the risk of belaboring the point, the music of the Central African rain forests took centuries of group development to create, while Deep Forest came about in a few months. We can expect that the music that took hundreds of years to develop will move us more deeply, even though it may take longer to sink in.

While projects like “Deep Forest” can garner positive attention for indigenous, roots musicians, I’m not so sure that the monetary rewards flow likewise. If you have concerns about things like the artists actually being paid for their labor, then support the records where artists are named and/or where liner notes specifically state where the money is going.

Projects like the multi-CD “Global Meditation” (Relaxation Company 1993) and “Global Celebration” (Ellipsis Arts 1992) send revenues to the Rain Forest Alliance. The “X Marks the Spot” (Caroline 1994) compilation helped fund the South African Voter Education Project.

Labels such as Mango, Xenophile, Shanachie, Real World and Ellipsis take care to promote everything from the most commercial to the rootsiest grounded stuff there is. They give the artists what they deserve at least in terms of credit, and I suspect in compensation. They also frequently package recordings with good notes and pictures that help contextualize the music, thereby hopefully combating the rise of “McCulture.”

November/December 1995

1 comment

  1. It is sad to see that in the UK making reference to being socialist is seen as something dated and out of fashion, quirky, something to be ridiculed and to poke fun out of. We are gradually sliding back towards a world of privilege avoiding any kind of meritocracy, where those with privileged backgrounds are always kept at the top irrespective of their talents or abilities. We are rapidly moving towards being the USA’s 51st state. We know more about what is going on in the USA and aspire to its materialist culture than we know what our European cousins are up to. We are removing welfare from those who are suffering from extreme poverty and disadvantage and labelling them as lazy and useless because we have replaced them with machines in order to increase profits and dividends for shareholders. It is nice to see that there are still people out there who care for our planet and the welfare of others.

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